William Gibson
March 31, 2001 5:39 PM   Subscribe

William Gibson talks about the Japanese as the Ultimate Early Adaptors, mobile phones and schoolgirls. As usual he is obsessed with wrist watches.
posted by laukf (18 comments total)
i like my sci-fi writers delusional :)
posted by kliuless at 6:32 PM on March 31, 2001

There's no story there when I click the link....
posted by PWA_BadBoy at 8:24 PM on March 31, 2001

You just have to wait a looooong time. I think they need to update their content management system or their server...
posted by SpecialK at 8:40 PM on March 31, 2001

I have two comments:

1. The long, long LONG column of skinny text is highly annoying. Highly. BAD designer. Bad.

2. I agree with him, and I do not think he's delusional. Maybe obsessed, but not delusional.

I'm the son of a mid-level manager for a japanese automaker. As such, I drive a japanese car (All american cars made after 1969 feel like plastic to me... with the possible exception of some 70's corvettes.), know how to eat sushi and drink saki, and I know how to teach a japanese person to pronounce an L.

Observation: The Japanese are so focused on what they're doing at the moment that it's almost funny. The same dedication that William Gibson talks about when the Japanese restructured their whole country around western prinicples is still there, but they haven't knocked off the rough edges of a feudal society, and this is the reason they're so position oriented in their society.

The next step for them seems to be pulling out of the economic slump they're in by flattening out their hierarchies, which is what America just spent the past 20 years doing.

It's interesting that America is pretty balanced... change happens at about the same rate socially as technologically. Japan is very out of balance... i.e. they mature slowly in the social department, and very very very quickly in the tech department.
posted by SpecialK at 9:40 PM on March 31, 2001

SpecialK: There's a "text-only version" in most Guardian articles, at the top of the left hand column. But the site does take forever to open (unlike this link). It took a lot less time earlier this evening than it did now--it's AM now in England, so maybe that's why?

On the subject of Americans advancing "at about the same rate socially as technologically"--maybe more than the Japanese, but I think we're a ways behind the technology socially/morally, especially on issues like cloning/genetic manipulation.
posted by aflakete at 10:17 PM on March 31, 2001

It's interesting that America is pretty balanced... change happens at about the same rate socially as technologically. Japan is very out of balance... i.e. they mature slowly in the social department, and very very very quickly in the tech department.

When viewed from from your perspective perhaps, SpecialK. Balance sounds to me to be a very relative concept. Perhaps the Japanese seem to be unbalanced because they don't share (your) American values.

I can't help feeling that you might be falling into the same trap as many other Westerners who imagine Easterners as being somehow childlike and lacking maturity.

Is Japanese society immature?
posted by lagado at 10:26 PM on March 31, 2001

I agree with you lagado, if I can be allowed to imply that you feel the opposite of SpecialK. My belief is that what SpecialK refers to as slowness of maturity in the aforequoted paragraph is really slowness to change, and that the overall hesitancy of the Japanese to allow their value system to swing around and morph into any arbitrary shape they see fit to apply would actually indicate a greater level of maturity than that exhibited in the United States. I find America to be about the most imbalanced place I can imagine being. I find restraint and consideration to be signs of maturity which I experience very infrequently in the United States.
posted by donkeymon at 12:01 AM on April 1, 2001

Is Japanese society immature?

Depends what you mean by maturity. I'm intrigued by Gibson's comments on the close ties between Britain and Japan as "codified" societies. (It's well known that Japan drives on the left because the Emperor learned to drive from Edward VII. It means that Minis are ideal collectibles.) I've not been to Japan, but my friends on JET placements are all in love with the place, because of its lack of cynicism, its sense of imagination. That's probably why I'm finding Linder Vanderzande's blog of her experiences since emigrating to Japan so fascinating.

lagado: childlike doesn't have to mean childish.

SpecialK: that the average CEO in the US gets paid 480 times more than his bottom-rung employee suggests that a kind of feudalism is alive and well. In fact, I'm starting to think that 21st-c capitalism is a new feudalism: the apparent liberation of the market, like that of the early 1700s, quickly stratifies. Class mobility is usually ratcheted by the beneficiaries to make sure they're not challenged.

they mature slowly in the social department, and very very very quickly in the tech department.

Think about the US in the post-war era. It took 20 years or more for tech development to be (in part) manifested in social change.

(The "Japan issue" of the Obs's supplement is definitely worth buying for the pictures, btw.)
posted by holgate at 8:15 AM on April 1, 2001

As someone who has a foot firmly in both American and Japanese cultures (speak both languages, travel frequently between both nations, have extended family in both nations, etc.) I respectfully disagree with Gibson. To his defense, many non-Japanese sci-fi authors seem to have a love affair with stereotype of Japanese culture.

I'll wager Gibson has never spent an extended amount of time in Japan. He seems to have a stereotypical view of the facade of Japan, certainly not any meaningful insight into the Japanese people. If he were to spend time outside of the major metropolitan centers, he'd see that the "Mobile Gal," "Muji," and "otaku" are not anywhere near central to or representative of Japanese culture in any lasting or meaningful sense. These are all trends less than 5-10 years old (within one of the older cultures of the globe) and his focus on these particular aspects of Japanese popular culture shows his lack of understanding of the more central aspects of what it is to be Japanese.

Americans are much farther ahead than the Japanese with respect to our use of the web in general. PC ownership is MUCH lower than in other nations because many Japanese don't have the space for a PC in their homes and the national monopoly on local phone calls makes getting online via dial-up prohibitively expensive. So while the Japanese are much farther ahead in the wireless space, the rest of the world is much farther ahead in the PC/Web space and I'd argue that's more important over the long run. As a related issue- let me ask MeFi readers to name one piece of Japanese software, besides PlayStation games, which is used by people all over the globe. (Your Japanese car doesn't count either ;) Can't do it? That's because there is none. Japan's weakness in software development (vs America or Germany or Ireland or Israel or India) might be argued as central to their declining dominance of "high tech." Manufacturing quality is rising all across the board and the newest innovations never did come from Japanese companies. One slashdot poster recently noted that none of the best graphics accelerator chips are made in Japan (those are mainly Canadian!)

The rest of the world has "otaku" just like the Japanese- spend time on any non-general interest mailing list and you'll find that otaku-ness is certainly not only the domain of the Japanese. I think one reason otaku-ness has been connected to the Japanese is their love of things- their materialism (which isn't necessarily a negative characterization which is generally speaking the case.) One could easily argue that being an "otaku" is being slave to an extreme form of materialism, so consider that as part of the equation.

Muji (which is a chain of stores that sell high quality products without brands) is merely the Japanese love of brands taken to one natural end- i.e. the brand without a brand. I love Muji as an idea and I think it's success in Japan is a positive sign that there are some who are moving away from the slavish deference to global brands (most obvious with women and fashion brands, but apropos across the spectrum of products) to a brand without a brand (which in itself is a brand nonetheless.)

Gibson's clearly only seeing what he wants to see in Japanese pop culture. Japanese culture, like many across the globe, is misunderstood and misrepresented by the dominant global media. It's easy to see only the glittering technology or the geishas or the sushi or whatever it is that the media always gravitates towards. It's much harder to see the hidden aspects of Japan, the parts of the culture that aren't open to foreigners and certainly aren't represented in the global media.

I urge you to reject the stereotypes and continually question the representation of Japan (or for that matter any culture not your own) that you see in the global media. You'll be far richer for it.

posted by gen at 9:09 AM on April 1, 2001

Thanks, Gen, that was informative - I'm still not sure what actually makes up Japanese culture, except what I've been exposed to through my dad's business associates.

that the average CEO in the US gets paid 480 times more than his bottom-rung employee suggests that a kind of feudalism is alive and well.

I take exception to that, Holgate. The CEO gets paid more because he has more responsibility and (supposedly) a higher intelligence than the bottom-rung employee. The Janitor's biggest decision is where to go for lunch - The CEO has a lot of rather large decisions that everyone (including said janitor) depend on him to make every day. Therefore, for that responsibility and the increased time spent on the job (Most CEOs I know work at least 60 hours a week), he deserves more compensation. Yes, it is a type of feudalism. But if you think about it, so is our country - we might be a republic, but we still have a president/king who has more power and things like a 747 to fly around in where he wishes, etc.

In comparison to what little I've seen of japanese culture, the 'inferior' members of the staff are scandalized when they come to America and their american boss doesn't want them to bow and scrape and open the door for them. This is one way where class stratification is a much 'bigger' thing in Japan than in America.
posted by SpecialK at 10:14 AM on April 1, 2001

Gen: Games. Japan still makes excellent games. Nintendo - Sony - Sega - Square, and all the rest. Remember that the games industry is bigger than the movie industry (although I suspect it is smaller than the software industry).
posted by adrianhon at 3:41 PM on April 1, 2001

My main point was put far better by gen. It's important to try and cut through the stereotypes (both positive and negative).

Westerners often visualize Japan (and the East in general) in a way not so very different from the orientalist writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. This constructed fantasy tends not to be very helpful in understanding the real place or its people.

(Nevertheless, I like Gibson and I really enjoyed the Neuromancer books although for some reason found his later ones fairly bland.)

In fact, I'm starting to think that 21st-c capitalism is a new feudalism: the apparent liberation of the market, like that of the early 1700s, quickly stratifies. Class mobility is usually ratcheted by the beneficiaries to make sure they're not challenged.

It's an interesting idea, holgate. The economic system does seem to be changing. Whether it will be describable in capitalist terms in 50 years time is anyone's guess.
posted by lagado at 5:00 PM on April 1, 2001

lagado: have a look at Deleuze & Guattari's stuff. It's an interesting take on the "state" of capitalism.

SpecialK: do CEOs have 480 times more responsibility than the "lowest" worker in a firm? 480 times more impact? Ever heard of the Peter Principle? When you speak of high-paid execs as if they've literally earned their salaries, isn't it just the divine right of kings turned capitalist? (Especially given that the Dilbertisation of office life means people are putting in as many hours as their bosses, just getting the rough end of the stick when it comes to benefits and layoffs...)

What's interesting about the Japanese corporate structure, though it's less prevalent now, is the concept of the keiretsu: the conglomerate as a kind of family. Which accounts for the bowing and scraping: when you're in a job for life -- as was often the case in Japan until the recession -- you treat your bosses as family elders, and they bring you through the ranks like the next generation.
posted by holgate at 6:59 PM on April 1, 2001

Holgate: Yes, IMHO, they do. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and their companies typically fail because of them. But most CEOs I've known (4 or 5) have worked hard to build what they've got and have worked hard to get there.
If you don't have the skill to get where they are, stop complaining and do your job and you might someday develop it -- if you haven't wasted enough of your brain cells whining because you're not making as much money as they are.
Also, note that their lives aren't really that nice - they have a lot of stress, a lot of them have poor home lives, and while they have things to make up for it, things can never really replace time spent with your kids and/or wife instead of work.
posted by SpecialK at 9:23 PM on April 1, 2001

Dang, SpecialK, aren't we a happy Western capitalist?
posted by lia at 5:28 AM on April 2, 2001

Yep. :) I work in a minor but important capacity for a small business. I go to work each day. I pay more than my share in taxes. I don't go to school on loans or scholarship, I pay my own way. Capitalism works quite well for me.

I'm not rich, but I'm happy with what I'm doing in life and the freedom the system that I'm in gives me to move around. The only thing that limits what I can do is me.
posted by SpecialK at 7:26 AM on April 2, 2001

Er, nice. Um, carry on.
posted by lagado at 11:12 PM on April 2, 2001

I pay more than my share in taxes.

Really? Can you pay my share too? Or are you taking about how much you should be paying?
posted by Jart at 12:17 PM on April 4, 2001

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